Building your computer, what components do you really need?

After working at a computer retail store for 2 years I’ve noticed a lot of customers coming in who are trying to build their own computers not knowing what components they actually need. In these types of situation it is both good and bad if you do not do your research before taking the dive. Good for the sales representative; since you do not know what you want, and you simply just walk in to the store with the mind set of buying a computer, they can simply spout out random crap that might or might not make any sense. In the end you’ll be the one that suffers. Perhaps that is exactly what you are looking for. Maybe, maybe not.

Rule #1 when buying a computer is decide what your budget for the purchase will be and be reasonable. If you do not know how much you are spending then you are basically giving the sales representative an unlimited budget in mind. We are going to assume the “I don’t know how much I want to spend on the computer” statement as “I don’t have a set budget in mind”. We WILL work from the most expensive components down. This wastes both your time and our time. Only difference is we get paid our hourly wage while you do not. In the end we win you lose.

Rule #2: Have a purpose for your computer. I have personally helped a number of customers that come into the store, ask for help building a computer but when asked what they plan to use the computer for and how much they are willing to spend, they give us a blank “WTF” look like we are supposed to know what they want. Giving us answers like “I don’t know I just want a computer” Shows us that you have no done your research nor have you made up your mind whether you really want a computer for something or not. Perhaps you’re simply there to waste our time, at which point you’ll start to notice a decrease in the quality of service most sales representatives would give you.

Rule #3: Know a little about the components you are about to pick out. Now that we have established your price budget and what your need a computer for, before going into the computer store and asking 20 questions, look up on the company website for an idea of the price range each components you want. Try and actually put together a list of components you think will work or meets your requirements, print it out and bring it in. That would be the most ideal situation. Why? Because doing so means you will get less of a chance of being duped or misinformed about components you might or might not need. Not everyone needs a $3000 dollar machine unless you just want to buy it just for the hell of it. You will make the sales rep. happier if you buy a $3000 dollar machine, but they will still treat you with the same respect even if your budget is only $500 dollars or less. A sale is a sale to us that is the harsh truth.
Now that we got the 3 main rules out of the way. Time for a little lesson in computer terminology, I will keep it as basic as possible however if you would like to learn more in depth on what each components are and what they are used for, feel free to use your favourite search engine to look them up.

PC101
An average computer set up consists of the Tower itself, the monitor, keyboard and mouse. The last 3 items are self-explanatory so I’ll just focus on the Tower.
A PC tower is the computer itself, which houses the components of the computer. It generally consists of the Motherboard, Central Processing Unit, Memory, Hard Drive, Optical Drive, Power Supply, Video Card and a series of cables to connect all the individual units to the motherboard. Occasionally you will see more add-on cards, but for the purpose of this article I will focus on the main critical components.

CPU – Also known as the Central Processing Unit. This should not be mistaken for the Tower. The CPU is a tiny microprocessor chip that sits on your motherboard inside the computer case. You will not see the unit once the system is built because the heatsink will be in the way. As CPU is considered the brain of the computer it is responsible for all the calculations and task managements of programs and hardware. Think of the CPU as your brain. When you want to move your hands to pick something up, your brain must process the object you want to pick up, the weight of it and size of it. Then it sends a signal to your hands to move and pick up the unit. This process happens so quickly that you will not realize this and it becomes more of an instinct or common sense action. Same concept. An important tip you need to remember. Even though there are only 2 main CPU manufacture, AMD and Intel, each manufacture has at least 2 different socket types in the market. This is why it is important to do your research before purchasing as it can affect performance and cost. Picking the processor first is usually what I suggest to my customers as it will determine what kind of motherboard you purchase. When buying a computer you usually start with the brain then move on to the other components.

Motherboard – This is the nervous system of the computer. All the devices connect to the motherboard to allow the devices to communicate with each other and receive instructions from the processor. It is the biggest unit inside the computer case since everything gets connected to it. This is a pretty straight forward component you will need to get. The size of the motherboard will determine the size of the case you will need to purchase.
Memory – Also known as RAM, or Random Access Memory. This is temporary application data stored in sticks of memory chips. This is different from a Hard Drive. It does not retain data. The data is lost when the computer shuts off or you restart the computer. This is used to store frequently used applications or files so that you can resume quicker. Since Memory is connected to the motherboard directly it has direct access to the memory controller therefore it is much faster than the Hard Drive. How much RAM really depends on your needs for the computer; however the standard size as of today is 4GB minimum while 8 being recommended. Unless you plan to do some heavy gaming, programming, rendering or any memory intensive applications you do not really need more than 4GB. Since RAM is inexpensive these days most people opt. for 8GB or more depending on their budget.

Hard Drive – This is the unit that stores your operating system and files. There are 2 types of Hard Drives. One is mechanical drive where there are smaller discs inside the drive that spins at incredibly fast speeds. Although they are cheap to manufacture compared to their solid state counterpart they suffer more in performance. The second would be Solid State Drive (SSD). Also a storage unit to store data on however uses memory chips to retain data. Unlike RAM, SSDs retain their data when the system is turned off. The disadvantage of SSD drives compared to the traditional Hard Drives would be the price and the size difference. SSD drives are expensive to manufacture and only come in relatively small sizes. Currently the cost of 1GB SSD is around 1-2 dollars. For mechanical drives 1GBs would be less than a penny.

Optical Drive – The CD/DVD/Blu-Ray drive. Either it’s only a reader or a burner. You will need one to install Windows and a few applications and drives. Beyond that if you still buy DVDs then you’ll need it to playback DVDs.
Next would be Power Supply – I don’t think I need to explain what this does. But if I must, the Power Supply is the unit that supplies power to the computer. Without it you have no power. No power = computer does not turn on. Simple as that. Picking a good power supply is crucial, never cheap out on a power supply just to shave a few dollars off your purchase. A bad power supply can at best case scenario, just kill the power supply. Worst case scenario, it will take the entire system with it forcing you to buy a new computer. If you have bad luck it can happen on a high end power supply, but at a much reduced rate.
Video Card – This unit provides the processing power to decode video and display it on your screen. All computers must have either an integrated video card or dedicated video card to run a monitor. Integrated these days means that the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) is built onto the processor itself rather than being installed as a dedicated card

Case – Not much to explain here, it is the housing unit for the computer. It’s hard to give proper advice on computer cases as there are too many to choose from. This component, I would recommend you simply find a nice case that like and then go from there. It’s not too hard to find the perfect case for you.
Operating System – for the most part most people are going to get Windows. It’s easy to use, install and maintain. Microsoft has done a fantastic job in streamlining this process for pretty much any user. Unless you have specific needs or are a power user who knows how to use other Operating Systems such as Linux. You will most likely be getting a variation of Windows. Currently it’s Windows 7. Price for these starts at around 100 dollars for OEM version 200 for Retail version of Home Premium. Microsoft is currently doing a promotion where if you buy a new computer with windows 7 you can upgrade to Windows 8 when it comes out by the end of this year.

After you get everything all picked out, paid for and brought it back home. The hardest part is now building the unit. If you do not feel comfortable putting it together yourself, you are better off either finding a friend who knows how to or simply get the store your purchasing your components to install everything for it. Obviously there will be charges on top of buying the components. Their labor is not free. If you do decide to attempt to install everything yourself, be warned, any physical damage done the components makes it final sale and voids any warranty it comes with even if you purchased it a second ago. Manufactures will not cover your accidents or mistakes if you insert the components incorrectly. So installing it is at your own risk. Having the store build it puts that pressure on the store itself. If they screw up, which is highly unlikely since they are trained and hired specifically for these task, it will be their responsibility. You will still walk out with a new computer.

Lastly I will cover is warranty. Most if not all components to the computer comes with at least 1 year manufacture warranty. And you always have the option to purchase in store warranty. That would depend on the store you buy it from. Every company has different policy.

Her are some common build types I’ve seen during my stay at that store. Most people will go in to buy budget home theatre systems. They do not need to be high end or come with any fancy bells and whistles. You can opt into buying higher end components if your budget allows but generally it is not necessary. Budgets like these are usually around 400+. Intel Atom processors and AMD Fusion platforms are ideal for Home Theatre or any small light use computers.

An average gaming machine will start at around 800 dollars unless you buy cheap stuff. Or buy them refurbished. But a decent customer built system starts at 800 dollars. Generally consisting of either an AMD FX processor or Intel Core i3/i5. You can use this for pretty much any type of build. However for a gaming machine you’ll most likely add a video card. Prices varies from 150 to 1200 dollars depending on how good of a card you want. 8GBs of RAM is usually recommended for a gaming machine.

Specialty machines prices vary the greatest. Ranging anywhere from 1000 to 5000+. Depending on the need for it they range anywhere from regular gaming machines to high end i7 processors or even workstation/server grade components.

So remember the next time you go into a computer store to buy a new computer. Make sure you know what kind of system you’re going to build and have a budget set in mind. That way the sales rep. won’t accidentally recommend you anything too over priced.

I hope this guide isn’t too long or too complicated, if you find this too complicated, let me know and I’ll revise it to be more simplified. If I missed any information, please feel free to let me know and I’ll add the in.
This guide was made after all the observation I had made in my previous retail experience my local computer store.

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